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Copy, borrow, steal: Rikki’s number & Sibelius’ swans

July 29th, 2009 12 comments

Few things at once delight and annoy the music fan as much as spotting a melody, a riff or a lyric lifted from another song. The delight resides in the act of knowing; the more obscure the source, the greater the pleasure. The irritation rests in the suspicion that an artist we admire has committed an act of plagiarism. How can one listen now to many Led Zeppelin classics knowing that Page and Plant didn’t just draw inspiration from other people’s composition, but irrefutably plagiarised artists they claimed to admire, and not give them a credit (except, belatedly, under the duress of legal action)?

Not all similarities in songs are plagiarism, of course. Some reference another piece of music with a knowing nod and a wink, as George Harrison did when he too inspiration from the Ed Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day for My Sweet Lord (of course, we can’t sounds_like_teen_spiritknow to what extent he knowingly plagiarised the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine — see here for more on that). It is quite possible that more than one people might have had the same good idea (it might well be that somebody has written this exact sentence before me in a similar context). It is plausible that a melody, riff or hook heard a long time ago has worked itself into the composer’s subconscious, and thus internalised emerges as something original, or at least presumed original. When Paul McCartney woke up with the melody for Yesterday in his head, he asked anyone who’d listen whether it sounded familiar to them. It didn’t. McCartney was scrupulous in ascertaining that the idea was indeed his. Not everybody is.

Timothy English wrote a fascinating book on songs that copy, borrow and steal, titled Sounds Like Teen Spirit (Website and Buy), which inspires this new series. And I will liberally draw ideas from it (having been in contact with Timothy I know he won’t mind). And since this blog is named after a Steely Dan song from the Pretzel Logic album, it seems right that this new series should kick off with a song from that album. The second segment does not feature in Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the scope of which excluded reference to works from the world of classical music.

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Horace Silver – Song For My Father.mp3
Steely Dan – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.mp3
Stevie Wonder – Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing.mp3

horace_silverYes, Steely Dan’s biggest hit borrows liberally. The opening keyboard riff that runs throughout the song was lifted was lifted from the title track of jazz legend Horace Silver’s 1964 album, released on Blue Note (and featuring Silver’s Cape Verde-born father on the cover). Silver was a pioneer of the percussive hard bop form of jazz, but Song For My Father, written after a visit to Brazil, has more of a funky bossa nova vibe.

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker famously fused their jazz sensibilities with their rock direction, so it seems appropriate that their biggest hit, reaching #4 in the US, should have borrowed from a jazz classic. Evidently sampling a riff so faithfully, even from a piece regarded by many as a classic, did not qualify its creator for a co-writer credit: Horace Silver is not credited on Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. The titular Rikki, incidentally, may be the writer Rikki Ducornet, who claims that Fagen, whom she knew in college, once did giver her his number at a party (Fagen has not commented).

Had Silver sued Steely Dan, he probably would have won. Writers have secured credits for much less (and others have gotten away with much more!). He also might have succeeded in litigating against Stevie Wonder’s use of Song For My Father’s horn riff as an inspiration for the melody of 1973’s Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing.

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Sibelius – 5th Symphony 3rd Movement.mp3
The First Class – Beach Baby.mp3
Strawberry Switchblade – Since Yesterday.mp3

first_classOnly nostalgists and one-hit wonder devotees might remember The First Class or Strawberry Switchblade. Beach Baby was The First Class’ only hit, in 1974. The First Class was one of the names under which British singer Tony Burrows and songwriters John Carter and Ken Lewis released some of their songs. While Beach Baby was The First Class’ only hit, Lewis and Carter were behind other one hit wonders. They were the Flowerpot Men, who had a solitary hit with Let’s Go To San Francisco in 1967, while Burrows fronted Edison Lighthouse, who had a massive hit in 1970 with Love Goes Where My Rosemary Goes, as well as with White Plains (My Baby Loves Lovin’) and Brotherhood Of Men before they hit the Eurovision trail. Carter had previously also enjoyed chart success as a founder-member of The Ivy League (Tossin’ And Turnin’).

strawberry_switchbladeStrawberry Switchblade, one of the few acts I ever caught live before they had a hit (The Housemartins and R.E.M. are the others; besides them, I was a jinx to every unknown act I saw), emerged from Glasgow’s punk scene to make some beautiful pop in the mid-‘80s, produced by John Deacon of Queen (so much for the punk revolution). Since Yesterday was released in November 1984, but hit the UK top 5 only in February 1985. They released only one LP and a couple of singles in Japan before splitting and disappearing.

Sibelius thinks about another pop riff.

Jean Sibelius contemplates creating another pop riff.

As the attentive reader may have worked out, both pop songs sample from Sibelius 5th symphony. The horn riff that opens Since Yesterday so gorgeously appeared a decade earlier in an interlude on Beach Baby (at 3:05) which unashamedly and deliberately recreates the sound of the Beach Boys, producing a rather good pastiche.

Jean Sibelius wrote his 5th Symphony in 1915 at the request of the Finnish government which wanted to mark the composer’s 50th birthday by declaring it a public holiday. It was revised twice, and it is the final revision from 1919 that is most commonly performed. Sibelius said the recurring horn motif which the two pop bands would adopt more than half a century later was inspired by the sound of swan calls. For both acts, the songs that used Sibelius’ swan call represented — and you know that I can never resist a criminally bad pun — their swansong.

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